It used to be that midway food consisted of familiar standbys that evoked a summer day spent at the fair: ethereal pink clouds of cotton candy; hotdogs served in nutrient-deficient white buns with the iconic squiggle of bright-yellow mustard; glossy candy apples; golden corndogs; sticky caramel corn; grease-spotted bags of mini-doughnuts.
Back in 2001, Eric Schlosser posited in Fast Food Nation that fast food offers a taste of the American dream. So, too, does the food you find at the fair. More than that, it offers a comforting taste of childhood.
These days, it seems those nostalgic favourites are taking a backseat to new ones. Ever since the Haven Chip Bar in Stonehaven, Scotland, started deep-frying Mars bars in 1995, fairs across North America have been in a contest to see who can unleash the biggest assault on your arteries.
In 2006, deep-fried Coca-Cola won "most creative" at the Texas State Fair; by 2010, deep-fried butter made its debut at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. At the Calgary Stampede this year, you'll be able to eat deep-fried Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, deep-fried Cheezies and deep-fried cookie dough. And then, of course, there is the (probably delicious) monstrosity that is the bacon cheeseburger served between two glazed-doughnuts that has popped up on midways all over North America. Human innovation is a wonderful thing.
The Red River Ex plays it a bit more safe when it comes to culinary offerings -- you won't be able to find pizza topped with seasoned scorpions, for example -- but it has expanded the menu beyond the usual fare (which, don't worry, is still there. I know, I know, I can pry the deep-fried pickles out of your cold, dead hands).
There are more ethnic options to be found in the Expressway, including African, Portuguese and Greek cuisine. There are also more healthy choices to be found but, let's get real, who goes to the Ex for kale? Maybe if it were deep-fried. And covered with scorpions.
In the name of investigative journalism, I went on a gastronomic tour of the Ex and ate a mix of new (to me, anyway) and old faves to provide you a list of must-eats -- zero per cent of which consists of green vegetables. I had heartburn for three days. You're welcome.
The dish: Chipdog, from Chipstix
What's that? It's a hotdog with a full potato spiralled around it. And then it's deep fried because of course it is. You can also get chipstix, which is the same thing minus the meat.
So, how was it? It was OK! The resulting chip was softer than I would have liked and it had the tendency to slip off the dog. The hotdog itself was delicious; it had a wonderful campfire taste and crunch. The chip itself was made exponentially better by the salt and vinegar seasoning I put on it.
Verdict: There was not enough water in the world to quench my thirst after this bad boy. Still, would eat again.
The dish: Deep-fried plantains, from Simba Safari Grill
What's that? I call plantains "weird bananas."
So, how was it? Very tasty. The plantains are deep-fried from fresh, giving them wonderful flavour. Served golden, they had a pleasant chew; like a denser sweet potato fry. I dipped them in sweet chili sauce, but they were great on their own.
Verdict: Would definitely eat again.
The dish: The Fisherman, from The Poutine King
What's that? A traditional Montreal poutine -- golden fries, squeaky cheese curds and gravy -- topped with wedges of brie, smoked salmon, capers and fresh dill. Fancy poutine.
So, how was it? Pretty much the best thing I've ever eaten, hyperbolically speaking. But seriously. While those are all flavours I enjoy on their own, I was skeptical they'd go together. But they do. It's a rich, indulgent dish.
Verdict: Would definitely eat again. Still thinking about it.
The dish: Bacon-wrapped corn on the cob, from Fresh Roasted Corn
What's that? Bacon is wrapped around the corn cob, the husk is replaced, and then it is grilled to perfection. The husk is then removed, and the whole thing gets dipped in butter. This seems like a Homer Simpson innovation.
So, how was it? You are acutely aware of how bad this is for you the entire time you're eating it, but especially when all the butter has migrated into the mostly decorative napkin you're clutching. But I ate the whole thing. (No regrets.)
Verdict: Nrrregggggh. But would eat again.
The dish: Mini-doughnuts
What's that? But everyone knows what those taste like. Yeah, well, my column, my rules. Plus, I'm not going to go to the Ex and not have mini-doughnuts. (Stay tuned for my next feature: Mini-doughnuts, ranked.)
So, how was it? I decided to hit up the big mini-doughnut vendor that sells actual mini-doughnut tickets (!) because it seemed the most legit. I was not disappointed. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. The cinnamon sugar-to-doughnut ratio was also impressive; the mixture didn't all end up in the bottom of the bag. According to my Ontario-raised videographer, they tasted similar to the CNE's Tiny Tom mini-doughnuts, which are the gold standard. You can buy 'em by bag or the bucket (no judgment).
Verdict: Would eat again. Obviously. But probably not after a Chipdog, fried plantains, fancy poutine and a bacon-wrapped corn on the cob -- dipped in butter -- next time.
The Red River Ex is on until June 22.
What is your favourite food at the Red River Ex? Join the conversation in the comments below.